Ask Stew: Is Adding Women into the Spec Ops Pipeline a Good Idea?

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Navy SEALs climb a Jacob’s Ladder during “Helocast and Recovery” training.
East Coast-based Navy SEALs climb a Jacob’s Ladder during “Helocast and Recovery” training on Joint Expeditionary Base Little Creek-Fort Story, Virginia, Aug. 15, 2013. (Mass Communication Specialist 2nd Class Meranda Keller/U.S. Navy photo)

Over the past few months, this email question has been blowing up my inbox. It is concerning adding women to Special Operations units like Army Special Forces, SEALs, Rangers and the rest. Here is an email from a future BUD/​S student:

I am training for BUD/S when I graduate college in 2 years. I am on Capitol Hill for the summer and I hear they are talking about lowering the fitness standards for some programs, including SEALs, to make it more inviting to women. What is your opinion on this, and do you think it will actually happen?

I do not speak for Navy Special Warfare. I am a civilian fitness writer who specializes in fitness standard programming. Making programs for people to succeed well above the minimum standards is what I do, no matter what the program, fitness test, or men or women.

But this question is really a waste of time coming from a young, male trainee who wants to go to BUD/​S. You all need to focus on your own training as it is a 80%-90% attrition rate among men. These men who quit are well-​​screened, tough and with above-average strength and cardiovascular endurance. You all will have your hands full training for the next couple of years to be competitive and in the top 10%-20% of the class who finish.

Getting into BUD/​S is not a cakewalk anymore. BUD/​S entry standards have gotten harder over the past decade with the following standards (see www​.SEALSWCC​.com for more information):

PHYSICAL SCREENING TEST

MINIMUM

OPTIMUM

• Swim 500 yards

12:30

9:00

• Push-​​ups

50

90

• Curl-​​ups, aka sit-​​ups

50

85

• Pull-​​ups

10

18

• Run 1.5 miles

10:30

09:30

Previously lower minimum standards yielded only a 6% chance of graduation. Today's minimum scores are higher, and the new optimum scores are required because it is so competitive to get into BUD/​S training today. Today's minimum standards are not that tough, but once you reach the optimum scores, the SEAL mentors in your recruiting district will put you up on a nationwide "draft" program, and the best combined scores (ASVAB, CSORT, PST, etc.) will get selected to go to boot camp, pre-BUD/​S, BUD/​S Indoctrination, then finally attend the real test: BUD/​S.

For what it is worth, I am not a fan of lowering any fitness standards in the military, Special Operations, police departments or firefighting professions for anybody -- male or female. These are dangerous jobs, and your fitness level one day can be the determining factor between living and dying, saving a teammate or not, or saving a victim or not.

That is how important it is not only to have high fitness standards for all of our public servants, but to also maintain them. So yes, I am not a fan of any different fitness standards for men and women doing the same job. There should be health and fitness tests as well as job performance testing, depending upon a person's job.

I know there are women who can physically surpass those optimum standards above. I cannot say whether a woman can make it through BUD/​S or not, and honestly, I cannot say whether any man is going to make it through BUD/​S. I have helped many prepare for BUD/​S over the past 15 years and always am surprised that some did not graduate. Physically, they should have had no problem with the course. There is more to BUD/​S than physical fitness standards.

My recommendation is to allow the people in the military, Pentagon and politicians to study the option of allowing qualified women into these professions. There are no predetermined answers,  just questions. Someone has to ask whether lower standards are an option. Someone has to ask how we integrate women into Special Operations. Someone has to ask whether Special Operations will be a better fighting force with these changes.

And we all should ask whether we really are a free country if we do not allow women to screen for all jobs in the military? BUD/​S is the "fitness" test to become a Navy SEAL. You are not a SEAL just because you are going through BUD/​S training.

People who are much smarter than I am are asking and answering these questions. There are many jobs in Special Operations that do not require advanced levels of strength and endurance, but require intellect, tactical precision and the ability to blend into a foreign country and not look like the Warrior-​​American class.

The CIA has had women doing dangerous, "behind-the-line" jobs for decades. It could be a logical fit. Who knows?

Stew Smith is a former Navy SEAL and fitness author certified as a Strength and Conditioning Specialist (CSCS) with the National Strength and Conditioning Association. Visit his Fitness eBook store if you're looking to start a workout program to create a healthy lifestyle. Send your fitness questions to stew@stewsmith.com.

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